By Lauren Goldberg
Lara Anderson is so excited. "This is one of the best parts of my curriculum," she says with a big smile. She's telling me about the next few weeks of the seventh grade humanities program, as we watch small groups of students working to locate details about the plot and setting of the historical novel they've just begun to read.
The book is April Morning by Howard Fast. Its title refers to April 18, 1775, the day of the first battle of the American Revolution, which the class will explore later this month as their American history curriculum progresses.
In sixth and seventh grades, our humanities program combines English/Language Arts with Social Studies, blending content, text analysis, writing, research and critical thinking. The literary choices typically reflect central themes of the history program (journeys and cultural studies in our sixth grade World Geography course, and early American stories in seventh grade), but it's not often that the connection is as specifically linked as the April Morning unit.
On this day, the students have just completed a history reading about the French and Indian War. Lara begins the class by asking for some clarification. "My big question for you is this: Who are the two main rivals in this war?" Hands shoot up around the room. "The English and the French," says one student. "Exactly," Lara affirms. "You would think from the name of the war that it's the French versus the Indians, but really, this was part of the 'Great War of Empire' between England and France." After a few more questions and comments, Lara shifts the focus of the lesson to the novel, which takes place approximately 12 years after the end of the French and Indian War. By the time the students finish the book, their history readings will have caught up to the events of the story.
"Let's put on our 'literary detective' hats now, and see what we can identify from the clues about the setting of this story," Lara says. "Where does it take place?" One student suggests that it might be England, based on the language and expressions that the characters use. "No, it's not England, but they are English citizens," Lara explains. "It's an English colony," suggests another student. Someone else finds a description of the kind of trees near the main character's home. "It must be New England, because we learned about this when we studied the eastern woodland Indians." Lara praises this response as a great example of how students can activate their prior knowledge to enhance their understanding of the text.
As they make their way through the opening pages of the novel, Lara encourages the students to think analytically about the information that is presented in the book, while she fills in details that are not mentioned. Then she divides the class into small groups, assigning each to investigate the first chapter for clues to story elements related to characters, conflict, and themes. "These skills are the same across the subjects," she tells me as the students begin to work. "They're digging into the book to find information, just like they do for their research." Indeed, their homework on this evening will require the same approach, as the students review their history text to locate specific details about the war.
April Morning, which centers on a compelling coming-of-age experience, offers our students a realistic first-person view of the events they are studying. "There will be a moment when the history text and the story line of the book intersect perfectly—on the same day!" Lara says. Our literary/historical detectives will be ready to appreciate that connection.
Lauren Goldberg is Foote's curriculum coordinator.